WRITER I SONGWRITER I MUSIC PRODUCER
Patrick Kavanagh (21 October 1904 – 30 November 1967) was an Irish poet and novelist.
In 1939 at the age of 35, Kavanagh settled in Dublin. In his biography John Nemo describes Kavanagh’s encounter with the city’s literary world: “he realized that the stimulating environment he had imagined was little different from the petty and ignorant world he had left (London). He soon saw through the literary masks many Dublin writers wore to affect an air of artistic sophistication. To him, such men were dandies, journalists, and civil servants playing at art. His disgust was deepened by the fact that he was treated as the literate peasant he had been rather than as the highly talented poet he believed he was in the process of becoming”. Kavanagh’s personality became progressively quixotic as his drinking increased over the years and his health deteriorated. Eventually becoming a dishevelled figure, he moved among the bars of Dublin, drinking whiskey and displaying his predilection for turning on benefactors and friends.
He was diagnosed with lung cancer and was admitted to hospital, where he had a lung removed. It was while recovering from this operation by relaxing on the banks of the Grand Canal in Dublin that Kavanagh rediscovered his poetic vision. He began to appreciate nature and his surroundings and took his inspiration from them for many of his later poems. At the age of 51 in 1956 until his death in 1967, Kavanagh finally received acclaim for his work.
SHORT STORY: SINK OR SWIM
(An excerpt from a novel I’m writing called ‘Pint Glass Men’).
Granda Mick believed that fear was a sign of weakness. He regularly reminded himself of his prowess as a man by swimming in the Irish sea in winter. He took long walks alone to contemplate people’s weaknesses. He didn’t drink, despite working for Guinness Brewery his whole life, and his only vice was smoking a pipe. The day he decided to find out if my life would be one of sinking rather than swimming, assumed by my dad, he took me to the Guinness Athletic Club’s swimming pool. I often wonder, in doing what Granda Mick did, if he employed extreme fear to teach me to overcome it. But something always whispers it was an Irish version of how ancient Spartans flung unworthy babies from Mount Taygetus but decidedly less death inducing. If I survived, I would save myself from a life of being considered worthless.
I was seven and he and my mam were at loggerheads for some reason. Mam was a hyper vigilant mother. I once saw an old home video of my christening where she had me in her arms leaving the church and she couldn’t take her eyes off me the entire time. So that day, Granda Mick must have ripped me from her arms.He took me on the bus with a sense of pride about what he was planning to do. He smoked his pipe and held his chin out, chest barrelled and showing the world he didn’t have their petty fears. I still associate the smell of pipe smoke with his self assurance.
The sun was belting down and it started out as a happy, exciting day. He talked to everyone on the bus, always willing to invite a stranger along with him on his walks or promise to put in a good word at the brewery. As always, the brewing process made Dublin stink something foul that day as he chatted about his job. I learned all about the benefits Granda Mick availed of for working for the brewery in the 1980s, which included access to healthcare, pension plans, sick pay, paid holidays, life insurance and subsidized housing. He often mentioned the free and discounted beer as part of his benefits package, too, which never made sense to me. But he had never mentioned his free access to certain sports and social clubs, which included the Olympic sized swimming pool in the Liberties.
We got changed alone, me in the big bad world excitedly pulling on my stretchy blue togs while he, in the next cubicle, talked about Dad’s diving accomplishments. Then we slip slopped across the dressing room tiles towards the echoing shouts of kids leaping from the diving boards, their big cannonball claps filling me with excitement. Timidly curious, I entered the space where the Olympic sized pool loomed monstrously. Copying Granda, I washed my feet—for whatever reason, I remember thinking as I shook. It’s clear now that he took this excitement for fear.
Walking towards the shallow end, I gazed into the friendly pale blue waters.
He marched on and called, “Over here.” Stopping halfway along the poolside, he peered down into a scary looking deep blue. “You’re going to swim in there,” he said, hands on hips, head up, embarrassed by my sheepishness.
He had a friendly, trustworthy smile, so I optimistically decided he was simply giving me something to aim for, that one day I’d take to that deep water like an otter. “I know that I have to kick my legs and move my arms at the same time, but…” I said, walking back towards the shallow end. Suddenly I felt hands around my hips, and then I was moving upwards, sideways and out over the deep blue, curling my legs into my body as if I could climb inside myself to escape certain death. In the midst of catching my breath to make my plea, he threw me out a good ten feet. Before I splashed down I heard him say, “You better swim.”
Still to this day, I wonder where the lifeguard was or why nobody pulled him up on what would be considered child abuse today. His confident voice said, ‘this is how it’s done’—the proof was that Dad was a champion diver, who had a whole cabinet full of diving trophies and medals.
In one panicked breath, I went under and swallowed a bellyful of water. A swarm of tiny stinging bubbles attacked my nose and cheeks, and bigger ones pounded my ears. Everything sounded muffled, bringing a forgotten part of me back to where it all began in Mam’s belly. Yet, my heart’s addiction to air, a heart of silence normally, screamed that I was sinking into one of those giant crevasses at the bottom of the ocean that I had seen on TV. I concured that my air would run out before Granda Mick decided to save me from ten leagues below. My little timid, self-conscious arms and legs transformed into the fast spinning blades of a bent propellor; one pulling sideways, the other upwards at a diagonal. Below me, stick legs, as opposed to bladed fins found on any living creature, did a blunt scissor kick motion. As my heartbeat increased to the speed of the pistons of a Formula 1 car in 1st gear, I managed to create enough force to barely negate gravity. Slowly, weakly, I moved towards the rippling, shimmering shapes warping above my head.
Coughing and inhaling my own splashes, fidelity returned to my hearing. When I breathed my larynx made a high pitched wheezing sound. I remember thinking about water wings and how they’d always kept me afloat because I was sinking again.I cried out, “Help, help,” went under and came up, “… help Granda!”
He just stood there, not even a hand out to reach for. “Kick your legs,” he said. “Don’t be whinging. Swim, for Jaysus’ sakes.”
Through a crude scrap with the water and cannonball waves shoving me back out, I managed to stay on the surface and doggy paddle back. With my chin dipping below massive waves, as far as I could tell, I barely noticed that I had been thrown into acid; my eyes and nose stung something awful. This is Sparta! Once I clawed up the poolside, coughing acid from my lungs and wiping bee stings from my eyes and nose, I looked up at him in shock.
He smiled. “Good man, ye didn’t die.”
Seeing how proud such a big man was of me, my heart’s terror quietened itself for a second. “Can I swim now?”
“No, but that’s a bloody good start.”
If Dublin had been Sparta, I just secured my survival.
Afterwards, he was gentler and a little guilty as he took me in his arms and carried me to the shallow end. There he taught me to swim properly. He lay me face down in the water, hand under me for support, the other hand teaching me how to pull the water, showing me the coordination needed for a front crawl.
After an hour, I was back in the deep end of my own volition, desperate to
show him what a quick learner I was and how unafraid of life I had become. On
the way home, I reran the panic I felt and the initial betrayal. The feeling of
being shoved from the safety of solid earth to face my own mortality, without
warning festered in me. However, every other forgiving cell in my body was
changing; this was how it was done. One day I would find myself in the deep end of a situation, clueless about how to swim and I’d have to find a way.
That lesson worked. Temporarily. Life is never so black and white as sink or swim. He had inadvertently given me my first drug, adrenalin. He got me hooked on the thrill of endangering myself. On recklessness. On taking risks with my health by swilling poison to give myself a high; dancing into blackness.
This, Sir, is NOT the Sparta you promised when you taught me that lesson!
LISTEN TO 2 SHORT STORIES I WROTE, READ BY ME
Donnacha lives on the remote Irish island of Treoir.
Haunted by the memory of his institutionalised wife and failing at being
a surrogate father to his niece and nephew, he tries to find new
meaning by giving refuge to an African teen who has albinism.
In parts of Africa, people with albinism are considered magical and
witch doctors convince remote tribes they will be blessed with good luck
and wealth by drinking a broth made from the body parts of albinos.
This makes them a hunted people.
Dubliner, Jonah Odjinwahlia, has a world-changing scientific theory
and suffers from albinism. When his petty criminal of a father plans to
sell him to traffickers, he is given refuge on the island of Treoir. But
his arrival amongst the sheltered community sparks old superstitions.
Once Jonah goes missing, his benefactor, Donnacha, sets off on a
perilous trek across Tanzania to hunt for the witch doctor Jonah has
been sold to.
Set against a backdrop of conservatism and superstition, Treoir is
both a gripping plot and an exploration into cultural norms that span
the modern and third worlds, highlighting the arbitrary remedies we
create for our fragility and human nature—that can legitimise our
most abhorrent behaviours.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 12 October 2020
But, clearly needing more problems, he decides to help Jonah, an albino youth from Dublin, whose Tanzanian family are proposing to sell him to a witch-doctor. Jonah’s arrival demonstrates it’s not only Tanzanians who are superstitious about Albinism. The youth’s presence upsets the locals, and not only those who already have a problem with Donnacha.
The world on the island is clearly not as Donnacha sees it, and at the start I wanted to shake him shouting, Wake up! Like many drunks, he takes to the booze at the worst of times, making himself vulnerable to his enemies. This is a complex novel with many strands. The characters, especially Donnacha, are well drawn.
The claustrophobia of the closed community on the island is well realised and builds. When Jonah disappears, Donnacha has to make a tough decision. Fearing he has failed yet another person, he risks everything and sets off on an expedition to recover the youth.
The danger and threats build to a satisfying climax.